In his bestseller “The Hare with the Amber Eyes”, the writer and ceramicist Edmund de Waal retraces the journey of his Jewish family and his art collection from the end of the 19th century to the 21st. The book combines history and memory with a sort of object-oriented ontology, drawing parallels between the post-WWII Jewish diaspora and the scattered possessions of the Ephrussi family (many of which were plundered by the Nazis). It begins when the author inherits a collection of Japanese netsuke, sculpted palm-sized sculptures from the Edo period that were with his Ephrussi parents for generations.
“I want to know what the relationship was between this wooden object that I roll between my fingers – hard and delicate and Japanese – and where it has been,” he wrote of the feeling of handling one of the netsuke. “I want to be able to reach for the doorknob, turn it and feel it open. I want to enter every room where this object has lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the walls, how the light fell from the windows. And I want to know what hands it’s been in, and how they felt and thought about it – if they thought about it. I want to know what he witnessed.
Fans of the book can now get so close to the netsuke and other pieces from Ephrussis’ collection in a fascinating and immersive exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York City, also titled “The Hare with the Amber Eyes.” Based on a previous exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Vienna (“The Ephrussis: A Journey Through Time”), it uses art, design, photography, sound and the ephemeral to recreate the cultured, sophisticated and sometimes extravagant family, and the efforts of various family members to save pieces of this life in exile.
The artfully designed installation by Diller Scofidio + Renfro takes full advantage of the fact that the Jewish Museum was once a banker’s private residence, showcasing the architectural features that have been put in place since the museum was the Felix M house. Warburg to evoke the Ephrussi houses. (De Waal has worked with Elizabeth Diller of DSR, as well as Senior Curator of the Jewish Museum Stephen Brown and Associate Curator Shira Backer.)
The installation is also closely modeled on de Waal’s narration, with a sound component that combines presentations with readings of excerpts. There are great sections on fin-de-siècle Paris and early 20th-century Vienna, where the Ephrussi family maintained lavish homes and were socially and financially on par with the Rothschilds. (They were also bankers, although the family business grew out of grain distribution in Odessa.)
And like the book, the show keeps returning to the netsuke – unveiling them in groups, with four different display cases placed at intervals – to underline the resistance of these objects through a century of violence, discrimination and dispossession.
Images taken this year by Dutch photographer Iwan Baan, showing the interiors of former family residences in Paris, now home to law and health insurance firms, and in Vienna, recently the headquarters of Casinos Austria and now partially unoccupied, are also placed in the galleries. with a Starbucks downstairs. In a picture of Paris, the ornate cornices are barely visible above the rows of filing cabinets and stacks of paper; in Vienna, gilded, chandelier-lit rooms have empty shelves and bare curtain rods. With their attention to the banality of the present, these photographs prevent the show from becoming the kind of story that de Waal wishes to avoid, “an elegiac Mitteleuropa tale of loss,” as he puts it.
In the installation, as in the book, the history of the family collection unfolds from the end of the 19th century, and of its most passionate art enthusiast: Charles Ephrussi, Parisian art historian, critic, Magazine editor, regular at the Salon and friend of Degas and Manet. This distant relative of de Waal was so intimately involved in artistic and literary circles that he appears in the background of Renoir’s famous painting “Déjeuner des canoteurs”, dressed for the occasion in a dark jacket and a top hat, and would have been an inspiration for Proust Charles Swann’s character “In Search of Lost Time”. These references did not prevent the increasingly emboldened anti-Semites of his day from shooting him, including Renoir, who described a painting by Gustave Moreau from Charles’ collection as “Jewish art”, citing the emphasis on its golden palette.
Le Moreau is part of a salon-style installation here, which somewhat awkwardly combines actual paintings with sepia reproductions. Mary Cassatt’s’ At the Theater ‘, formerly in Charles’ collection and now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum, is here only as an image, as is Manet’s package of asparagus, commissioned by Charles (and making part of a humorous exchange in which Manet, feeling he had been overcompensated for the painting, sent Charles another painting of a single asparagus stalk). The vigorously brushed “Young Girl in a Ball Gown” by Berthe Morisot is on loan from the Musée d’Orsay, accompanied by an extract from Charles’ writing on the artist: “She loves joyful and living painting, grinds flower petals on her palette in order to disperse them on her canvas with light and spiritual touches.
The Viennese branch of the family, established by Charles’ uncle Ignace von Ephrussi, is at the center of another gallery of art and ephemera – much of it centered on the Ephrussi Palace, the “absurdly grand” (according to in Waal’s words) and equally opulent five-storey house on the Ringstrasse designed by Theophil von Hansen, the architect of the Austrian Parliament. Hansen’s preparatory drawings for the building’s elaborate ceilings are on display, as well as designs for the ceiling paintings Ignatius commissioned from Christian Griepenkerl (the interior designer of the Vienna Opera House); Among the scenes that adorned the ballroom are stories from the Book of Esther, a nod to the family’s religious and cultural heritage.
Ignatius did not seem to have the same eye for the art of his time as his nephew Charles, preferring the Old Masters and later works in this style by Dutch, German and Austrian artists; examples on display include a portrait of an old woman by German artist Balthasar Denner and a muted 1870 street scene by Dutch landscape painter Cornelis Springer. Ignatius’ son – and Waal’s great-grandfather – Viktor, who inherited the family business and the Ephrussi Palace, was more of a bibliophile. Viktor’s wife, Emmy, meanwhile had a flair for fashion, as evidenced by photographs of her in various formal outfits and suits. (In one, she is dressed as Renaissance nobleman Isabelle d’Este; in another, she poses as a schoolteacher from a painting by Chardin.)
Emmy was however the keeper of the netsuke, which she and Viktor had received as a wedding present from Charles and which she displayed in a display case in her dressing room. And according to family histories, this is Emmy’s maid, identified in Waal’s book only as “Anna” – although the Vienna exhibition catalog suggests, oddly enough, that none of these people did not exist – which protected the netsuke when the Gestapo entered the Palace. Ephrussi, hiding them in his apron pocket and later hiding them under his mattress. This show doesn’t solve Anna’s mystery, or how the netsuke stayed with the Ephrussians, but it does feature reproductions of documents – including a meticulous Gestapo inventory of the family home – that make painfully clear the extent and the thoroughness of the looting.
The dispersal of the family by war, with Edmund Elisabeth’s grandmother (one of Emmy and Viktor’s children) eventually landing in England and her siblings settling in America, Mexico and the Japan, is pictured in a cleverly designed gallery of family photographs surrounding a weathered attache Cas. Many of them relate to Edmund’s great-uncle Iggie, a clothing designer turned banker who gave the netsuke a new home in Tokyo (incorporating them into trendy post-war Pan-Asian interiors with low sofas and Korean and Chinese artwork).
Overall, the exhibition could have taken a more critical look at “Japonism,” the West’s obsessive fascination with Japanese art and design objects, as Waal does in his book. The show, by comparison, doesn’t tell us much about the netsuke or what they may have “witnessed” before Charles acquired them, as a collection of 264 pieces, from a Parisian dealer. By the time we arrive at the eponymous amber eyed hare, in the final gallery, we can only be amazed by the preciousness of its raised paw, its folded ears and its always alert expression.
But as a family portrait or a look at the evolution of the collections over the generations, the museum version of “The hare with the eyes of amber” is deeply moving. In a time of so much loss, isolation and separation, it is heartwarming to see the Ephrussians reunited, with each other and with their art.
The hare with the amber eyes
Until May 15, the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave at 92nd St., (212 423-3200; firstname.lastname@example.org.